Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A not so brief introduction – Part 4

I didn’t write a lot of songs during the rest of my years in college. I was too busy with my course work and other things. But I did write one or two songs every now and then. It’s hard for me to pick up my guitar and not get pulled into a new song. I’ve let a lot of songs go by as well over the years. Sometimes I’m just too lazy to write it down or to make a recording. These days, it’s almost too easy to record song ideas, and even videos which allow you to put down chords and strumming patterns, on a smart phone. I have dozens of them on my phone at any given time. We didn’t have it so easy those days and I’ve lost many a song idea that came to me.

Another reason I didn't write many songs around this time was that my apartment was broken into and everything I owned was stolen. They cleaned out everything including the furniture. The thieves posed as movers so the neighbors thought I was moving. I came home around 10:30 at night and found literally an empty apartment. My cat was so scared, it took her a day to come out from somewhere. Among the items they stole were my acoustic and electric guitars, my amps, and my computer. The cops went through the motions but they basically told me that the chances of recovering my stuff was zero. It took a couple of years to replace the guitars with my current duo -- a Taylor 310ce (which has the best plugged in sound for live performances and a real sweet tone for recording), and a deluxe American Start (which is also the most versatile electric guitar). I also have a cheap Ibanez bass I use and a Line6 POD for guitar effects.

By the end of 2000, I had graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and had been working as a creative director for several years. I also had a catalog of almost 50 songs. I decided to experiment with recording. I picked up a MOTU828 and an Audio Technica studio microphone. The MOTU came with a slightly stripped down version of Digital Performer. I started recording at home on my iMac with this set up.

I learned how to use the audio interface and the software entirely on my own by getting totally immersed in it for a few months. That’s how I usually teach myself stuff – by getting into it intensely. I learned desktop publishing the same way… and Photoshop… and Final Cut Pro… and GarageBand… and Adobe Muse. In a few weeks, I had learned how to record and mix a song completely. I bought some drum loops from Beta Monkey and added drums to my songs. Finally, I could slowly hear my songs come to life.

Of course, my biggest impediment then (and now) is my ability to play what I hear in my head on guitar. I decided to find a producer and musicians to help me record my songs. I met with a few producers and finally settled on one. I started recording my first album, “The Dark Edge OfThe Light,” in 2000. I picked songs that reflected the theme of the album – dark but with a ray of hope! It took about a year to complete the 10 tracks, mix it, and make the cds at Disk Makers. I couldn’t afford to waste studio time, so I made multi-track recording of each songs and took them one by one to the producer. In many instances, they were almost complete. I was listening to my originals the other day and it was remarkable how close they are to the studio versions. It cost me about $700 for producing each song with full instrumentation… times ten for the album! That was a lot of money. I was recently married then but we didn’t have kids yet. So, my wife allowed me the indulgence. I don’t think I’ve got back the money I spent on it yet. I still have 500 CDs sitting in my brother’s basement in New Jersey. Send me 5 bucks for a copy!

I did learn a lot about playing, recording, and mixing during the process though. I insisted on being there in the studio and mixing booth for every second I was billed. I watched and learned. I loved the experience of being in a studio and having a producer deconstructing my songs and offering suggestions for the instrumentation. I still enjoy watching a song come alive slowly track by track. I went on to record a few more songs in a professional studio with other musicians. After my kids were born, I could not justify the expense of recording my songs professionally any more.

My next major project was writing my novel “Bangalore Baloney.” I wrote the whole novel thinking it would have a companion cd of songs. I couldn’t find a publisher for it with the songs and I didn’t have the means to produce the 16 songs in it on my own. So I decided to publish the book by itself. I managed to record a few of the songs in the studio before realizing I couldn’t afford to do it on my own.

By this time in my life, my songs were getting more mature. Songs from the novel, like “From There To Here,” “Butterfly’s Dream,” and “Time Will Show,” are all important songs in my body of work as a songwriter.  I released another cd, “From There To Here.” It was a compilation cd of some new and old songs. By this time music distribution had changed considerably. I released it on cd – but in much smaller quantities than my earlier one. I’d started playing live and started selling it at venues where I played. I sold enough for a second pressing of the cd this year.

Which brings me to how things are today. The music industry has been turned on its head now. It’s very hard for independent songwriters and musicians to even consider making a living from their music. Most full-time musicians have to hustle just to get by. Many survive by offering their services in music production or graphic and web design to songwriters. As someone once told me, if you want to make money from music these days, offer a service that independent singers and songwriters need. Derek Sivers realized that early. He was the musician and songwriter who started CD Baby in 1997 offering music distribution to independent songwriters. He sold it to Disc Makers in 2008 for $22 million.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how someone like me – a singer/songwriter who wants to record and publish his own music – can make any money today. I’ve been looking at my digital sales and trends online. The good news for me, and anyone who produces digital content, is that if you own it completely, and once you bear the initial cost of putting it online, you can (in theory) collect money on it in perpetuity.  So far, I have a book and about 20 songs online. I usually make about 20 bucks on them in a month if I am lucky – just from random sales and song plays without any marketing or publicity efforts on my part. My goal is to have all my songs for digital distribution and a couple more books at least. By adding a little marketing to the mix, I may be able to finally start making some real money someday.

Looking at sales and plays around the world for my songs, it appears that catchy titles grab peoples attention. Short titles work better than long ones. Arresting album art that is easy to see and uncomplicated visually even in thumbnail form gets more clicks (my argument for releasing singles rather than albums). Up-tempo songs do better than ballads. Of course a good song stays on someone's playlist and keeps making money.

It is disheartening to see what people are paying for music today. Most listeners want to pay NOTHING for the music they listen to -- it's almost an accepted norm. Even in the years when I struggled to make ends meet, I spent at least $20 a month on buying music (a couple of albums). Now you can subscribe to a service that offers you all the songs you can listen to for less than 10 bucks. Guess who's getting screwed in this arrangement -- the musician and songwriter who make a fraction of a penny (specifically $0.004891) for each song play. No one buys songs anymore. Even paying 99 cents for a song is considered too much by the average music listener. A million song plays earn you about $5,000.

This lack of commitment and the general reluctance of the average listener to pay for music will ultimately be met in kind from people who make the music. That’s the law of demand and supply. These days you can’t justify spending thousands of dollars on producing an album for the fraction of a penny you get for each song play on Spotify. People don't pay anything for music so their standards for audio quality are also low. Music purists are few these days. Most of the music out there is low-res mp3 files. No one seems to care. I’m going to write a longer post on this subject soon, but my point here is that I’ve decided to consider getting out as much of my songs and stories as possible in the near future on the cheap. If I produce the song myself, it costs me $23 to master it and release it digitally through CD Baby (including the cost of the ISRC code). This allows me to sell my music on all the music outlets worldwide forever. Putting my songs out there also protects the songs from copyright infringement. I can't even make a video for myself anymore without CD Baby stepping in to claim royalty on my behalf.

So even if I don’t become rich in the near future, maybe my songs will generate some income for my kids for years after I am gone.Or maybe I'll get a licensing deal... or someone famous will steal my song. I wish!

Thanks for reading. Buy a few of my songs and support independent music. Now on to the real posts...

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